Board approves housing trust’s $2M request

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – The Big Sky Resort Area District final appropriations meeting at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center on June 18 sailed along at a relatively swift clip, with 15 of the 25 organizations that applied for resort tax funding granted their full request.

The largest request, coming from the Big Sky Community Housing Trust to the tune of nearly $2 million, was 98-percent funded at $1.95 million, minus $45,000 that was going to be used to address Big Sky’s short-term rental problem.

The second largest portion of the funding, $235,000, will support the trust’s burgeoning down payment assistance program. The remaining $95,000 will be designated toward hiring a fulltime Big Sky-based housing trust manager.

In a rare exception the board only makes for long-term and large-scale capital projects, the housing trust will be able to apply the funds to these projects and programs for three years, as opposed to the typical one-year appropriations cycle.

The motion to grant the amount carried unanimously. The decision came on the heels of two public presentations by Wendy Sullivan Consulting—one specifically for the resort tax board—that detailed the severity of the housing problem in Big Sky, and provided a step-by-step strategic plan to address it for every income level.

Other big requests in the range of $700,000 to nearly $1 million that sailed through the allocation process included the Big Sky Fire Department, Big Sky Transportation District, and Big Sky Community Organization.

Vice chair Kevin Germain attempted to shave $145,000 off the fire department’s request by questioning the necessity of adding another ambulance for the department. His query was cut off by board chair Jamey Kabisch’s comment that it was the only asset that actually made the department money; and board member Steve Johnson’s quip: “How about it’s a life saver?”

Board member Sarah Blechta added, “As much as it pains me to give away $1 million, most calls come from tourists … I can get behind it, but I’d love to see some savings in the budget.”

In what seems to be a pattern in the board’s reception to large, first-time funding requests that come from organizations without a strong Big Sky presence, the nearly $1 million request from Gallatin County 911 to improve emergency service communication within Gallatin County and with Madison county, was met with heavy questioning during the applicant Q&A, and again during final appropriations—not about the necessity of the upgrade, but as to why both counties were not contributing their share.

Ultimately, the board reached consensus to fund half of their request, nearly $500,000, to fund the first phase of the project, with encouragement from Big Sky Fire Department Chief William Farhat that it would likely help them gain some leverage with the counties.

The question of funding schools and daycare facilities such as Morningstar Learning Center and Big Sky Discovery Academy saw a fair amount of discussion and dissent among the board, with reiterated concerns about providing tuition scholarships for families who do not need financial assistance, and the higher price point of a private school such as Discovery Academy.

Morningstar received all of its $200,000 request, which included a rollover from last year; while Discovery was granted $52,000, solely for the tuition assistance portion of its $70,000 request.

Visit Big Sky CEO Candace Carr Strauss came down to the front row to prepare to respond to the board, when Johnson motioned to grant the organization 38 percent, or $289,872 of its $758,000 request.

After some hashing out of resort tax’s responsibility to fund marketing Big Sky as a tourism destination—to which board member and longtime resident Mike Scholz said was one of its original purposes—and a plea from Strauss, the board compromised by keeping in line with the amount of funding provided last year, approximately $100,000 less than Visit Big Sky requested.

At 8:26 p.m., the funds-available cell in the spreadsheet projected above the stage dropped to zero, closing resort tax appropriations for the 2019 fiscal year.

Visit resorttax.org for more information or watch video footage of the final appropriations meeting on the EBS Facebook page.